According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Human Fossil Record

 
 
The Human Fossil Record. Part 1.
The Nature of Transitional Fossils

November 25, 2011

The Human Fossil Record. Part 1. The Nature of Transitional Fossils
                                         
Today's entry was written by James Kidder. James Kidder holds a Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology from the University of Tennessee (UT). He currently employed as an instructor at UT, and as a science research librarian at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He has been involved in the Veritas Forum at UT and runs the blog "Science and Religion: A View from an Evolutionary Creationist/Theistic Evolutionist."                                        

 

Transitional Fossils


This is a re-posting of a blog from December 10, 2010. We think it was an important one. Note though that it was posted shortly before the discovery of Denisovans. So now one more red bar needs be added to the figure above.

Some time ago, the Discovery Institute’s Casey Luskin commented on the human origins exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, suggesting that palaeoanthropologists use evolutionary theory to describe the progression of the human lineage even when they don’t have transitional fossils with which to work. He writes:

What's ironic, however, is that if you ask the question How Do We Know Humans Evolved? the answer you’re given is, “Fossils like the ones shown in our Human Fossils Gallery provide evidence that modern humans evolved from earlier humans.” So whether you find fossils or you don’t, that’s evidence for evolution.

Indeed, it has become an article of faith for those espousing both the young earth creation model (hereafter YEC) and many who hold to the intelligent design model that transitional fossils do not exist and therefore evolution has not taken place. Support for this position usually entails attacking the weak areas of the fossil record, where burial processes have left us little with which to work, or the creation of straw men arguments in which transitional fossils are defined in such a way that none could ever be found. Often this centers on the concept of “missing link,” a term that is habitually used in the popular press and young earth creation and intelligent design literature when referring to fossil remains but which has little to no meaning for biologists or palaeontologists. As Ahlberg and Clack (Ahlberg and Clack 2006) write:

But the concept has become freighted with unfounded notions of evolutionary ‘progress’ and with a mistaken emphasis on the single intermediate fossil as the key to understanding evolutionary transitions. Much of the importance of transitional fossils actually lies in how they resemble and differ from their nearest neighbours in the "phylogenetic" tree ("the study of evolutionary relatedness"), and in the picture of change that emerges from this pattern.

Contrary to common misconceptions, the fossil record does not record one single lineage for any family of organisms but rather a series of branches, with many related species coexisting synchronously. Darwin hypothesized that the evolutionary record reflected this bushiness and drew such a diagram in his journal. At the time, though, he had little in the way of fossil evidence to back up this position. Much has changed since his day.


An analogy for understanding this “bushiness” was best described by Prothero and Buell (Prothero and Buell 2007). They suggest that the reader consider his or her own genealogy. You and your siblings are the direct descendents of your parents and, while you are similar to them, each of you has different characteristics not shared with them as well as characteristics that you do share. Your parents have siblings as well (your aunts and uncles), and your grandparents are their last common ancestors. These siblings have their own children (your cousins), who have different and similar traits relative to their parents. They are broadly recognizable as being related to you (“oh, I see you have Aunt Edna’s nose”) but three or four generations out, they will become less and less so. These are the “nearest neighbours” that Ahlberg and Clack describe. In this analogy, each of these cousins represents a transitional form from what was (your grandparents) to what will be down the road.


For example, no one would confuse a frog with a salamander but if you trace the fossil record of each back in time, eventually you encounter a fossil, Gerobatrachus hottoni which was recently discovered (Anderson et al. 2008) that is best described as a “frogamander,” having the basal characteristics of both frogs and salamanders. Had we seen such an animal at the time, it is likely we would not have found it remarkable because it would have resembled the species around it. One lineage eventually diverged into frogs, salamanders and other amphibians. Most (just like Darwin proposed in his tree diagram with the little hatch marks at the tip of many branches) went extinct.

 

Taxonomy and the Beginnings of Human Origins

All life is classified based on a system devised by Carolus Linneaus in 1735 in his remarkable work Systema Naturae. This system gives all recognized species an individual place based on a system of hierarchy. The study of classification is known as taxonomy. A taxonomic ranking for humans would be this:


When a fossil is excavated, the first thing that the palaeontologist does is make a taxonomic assessment of where it fits in a sequence of known fossils. Traits that are shared with other like species or genera are referred to as primitive traits. Examples of this in humans are five fingers and the presence of three arm bones. We share this with all mammals. Traits that are new or are not shared with other like species are referred to as derived traits. Examples of this in humans are the skeletal changes in the pelvis and the foot to allow for walking upright. We do not share these with any other primates.

Transitional fossils in the human fossil record are distinguished at both the genus and species level. This group includes the extinct genera Ardipithecus and Australopithecus and the current genus Homo. All species except Homo sapiens are extinct. Much of the recent study of early humans focuses on the transition from Ardipithecus (‘Ardi’) to Australopithecus (‘Lucy’ and similar fossils) and from Australopithecus to Homo, the genus that led eventually to us. While each of the australopithecine species identified in the fossil record has derived characteristics that separate them from their ancestors and from each other, only one led to the genus Homo.


In future posts, I will describe the evidence for human evolution and why this evidence is compelling. It suggests that we have had a long, varied history filled with great leaps of change, crushing defeat, and eventual expansion into all areas of the globe.

Notes

Ahlberg, P. & J. Clack (2006) A firm step from water to land. Nature, 440.
Anderson, J. S., R. R. Reisz, D. Scott, N. B. Frobisch & S. S. Sumida (2008) A stem batrachian from the Early Permian of Texas and the origin of frogs and salamanders. Nature, 453, 515-518.
Prothero, D. & C. Buell. 2007. Evolution: What the fossils say and why it matters. Columbia Univ Pr.


 

The Human Fossil Record. Part 2. Bipedality
http://biologos.org/blog/the-human-fossil-record-pt-2-bipedality


 The Human Fossil Record, Part 3: The Discovery of Australopithecus
http://biologos.org/blog/the-human-fossil-record-part-3-the-discovery-of-australopithecus


The Human Fossil Record, Part 4: Australopithecus Conquers the Landscape
http://biologos.org/blog/the-human-fossil-record-part-4-australopithecus-conquers-the-landscape


The Human Fossil Record, Part 5: The Dispersal of the Australopithecines
http://biologos.org/blog/the-dispersal-of-the-australopithecines


The Human Fossil Record, Part 6: The Dispersal of the Australopithecines, Cont’d
http://biologos.org/blog/the-dispersal-of-the-australopithecines-part-ii


The Human Fossil Record, Part 7: The Rise of Early Homo
http://biologos.org/blog/the-rise-of-early-homo


The Human Fossil Record, Part 8: Evolution in Early Homo
http://biologos.org/blog/evolution-in-early-homo


The Human Fossil Record, Part 9: Out of Africa (The First Time)
http://biologos.org/blog/the-human-fossil-record-part-9-out-of-africa-the-first-time


The Human Fossil Record, Part 10: Homo erectus in Asia
http://biologos.org/blog/the-human-fossil-record-part-10-homo-erectus-in-asia-1


The Human Fossil Record, Part 11: Homo erectus in Asia, Cont’d
http://biologos.org/blog/the-human-fossil-record-part-10-homo-erectus-in-asia-contd


The Human Fossil Record, Part 12: The Rise of Archaic Homo sapiens
http://biologos.org/blog/the-rise-of-archaic-homo-sapiens


The Human Fossil Record, Part 13: East Asian Archaic Homo sapiens
uncompleted as yet (2.20.2013)




 

Misconceptions about Evolutionary Theory and Process

Misconceptions About Evolution, Part 1
Part 1

November 21, 2011


The website Understanding Evolution, hosted by The University of California Museum of Paleontology, Berkeley, offers its readers numerous helpful resources regarding the science and history of evolutionary biology. The site’s stated goal is to “help you understand what evolution is, how it works, how it factors into your life, how research in evolutionary biology is performed, and how ideas in this area have changed over time.” Among its resources is a list of popular misconceptions about evolutionary theory. In this two part series, we’d like to highlight some of the site’s most helpful responses to these misconceptions. The full list, and many other wonderful resources, can be found at Understanding Evolution.

Misconceptions about Evolutionary Theory and Process

"Evolution is a theory about the origin of life."

Evolutionary theory does encompass ideas and evidence regarding life's origins (e.g., whether or not it happened near a deep-sea vent, which organic molecules came first, etc.), but this is not the central focus of evolutionary theory. Most of evolutionary biology deals with how life changed after its origin. Regardless of how life started, afterwards it branched and diversified, and most studies of evolution are focused on those processes.


"Evolution is like a climb up a ladder of progress; organisms are always getting better."

One important mechanism of evolution, natural selection, does result in the evolution of improved abilities to survive and reproduce; however, this does not mean that evolution is progressive — for several reasons. First, natural selection does not produce organisms perfectly suited to their environments. It often allows the survival of individuals with a range of traits — individuals that are "good enough" to survive. Hence, evolutionary change is not always necessary for species to persist. Many taxa (like some mosses, fungi, sharks, opossums, and crayfish) have changed little physically over great expanses of time.

Second, there are other mechanisms of evolution that don't cause adaptive change. Mutation, migration and genetic drift may cause populations to evolve in ways that are actually harmful overall or make them less suitable for their environments. For example, the Afrikaner population of South Africa has an unusually high frequency of the gene responsible for Huntington's disease because the gene version drifted to high frequency as the population grew from a small starting population.

Finally, the whole idea of "progress" doesn't make sense when it comes to evolution. Climates change, rivers shift course, new competitors invade — and an organism with traits that are beneficial in one situation may be poorly equipped for survival when the environment changes. And even if we focus on a single environment and habitat, the idea of how to measure "progress" is skewed by the perspective of the observer. From a plant's perspective, the best measure of progress might be photosynthetic ability; from a spider's it might be the efficiency of a venom delivery system; from a human's, [his] cognitive ability. It is tempting to see evolution as a grand progressive ladder with Homo sapiens emerging at the top. But evolution produces a tree, not a ladder — and we are just one of many twigs on the tree.


"Evolution means that life changed 'by chance.'"

Chance and randomness do factor into evolution and the history of life in many different ways; however, some important mechanisms of evolution are non-random and these make the overall process non-random. For example, consider the process of natural selection, which results in adaptations — features of organisms that appear to suit the environment in which the organisms live (e.g., the fit between a flower and its pollinator, the coordinated response of the immune system to pathogens, and the ability of bats to echolocate). Such amazing adaptations clearly did not come about "by chance." They evolved via a combination of random and non-random processes. The process of mutation, which generates genetic variation, is random, but selection is non-random. Selection favored variants that were better able to survive and reproduce (e.g., to be pollinated, to fend off pathogens, or to navigate in the dark). Over many generations of random mutation and non-random selection, complex adaptations evolved. To say that evolution happens "by chance" ignores half of the picture.

For more see our questions on "What is Evolution?" and "How do randomness and chance align with belief in God’s sovereignty and purpose?".

“Humans are not currently evolving”

Humans are now able to modify our environments with technology. We have invented medical treatments, agricultural practices, and economic structures that significantly alter the challenges to reproduction and survival faced by modern humans. So, for example, because we can now treat diabetes with insulin, the gene versions that contribute to juvenile diabetes are no longer strongly selected against in developed countries.

Some have argued that such technological advances mean that we've opted out of the evolutionary game and set ourselves beyond the reach of natural selection — essentially, that we've stopped evolving. However, this is not the case. Humans still face challenges to survival and reproduction, just not the same ones that we did 20,000 years ago. The direction, but not the fact of our evolution has changed. For example, modern humans living in densely populated areas face greater risks of epidemic diseases than did our hunter-gatherer ancestors (who did not come into close contact with so many people on a daily basis) — and this situation favors the spread of gene versions that protect against these diseases.

For more see our question "Did evolution have to result in human beings?".

"Species are distinct natural entities, with a clear definition, that can be easily recognized by anyone."

Many of us are familiar with the biological species concept, which defines a species as a group of individuals that actually or potentially interbreed in nature. That definition of a species might seem cut and dried — and for many organisms (e.g., mammals), it works well — but in many other cases, this definition is difficult to apply. For example, many bacteria reproduce mainly asexually. How can the biological species concept be applied to them? Many plants and some animals form hybrids in nature, even if they largely mate within their own groups. Should groups that occasionally hybridize in selected areas be considered the same species or separate species? The concept of a species is a fuzzy one because humans invented the concept to help get a grasp on the diversity of the natural world. It is difficult to apply because the term species reflects our attempts to give discrete names to different parts of the tree of life — which is not discrete at all, but a continuous web of life, connected from its roots to its leaves.

Misconceptions about Natural Selection and Adaptation

“Natural selection involves organisms trying to adapt”.

Natural selection leads to the adaptation of species over time, but the process does not involve effort, trying, or wanting. Natural selection naturally results from genetic variation in a population and the fact that some of those variants may be able to leave more offspring in the next generation than other variants. That genetic variation is generated by random mutation — a process that is unaffected by what organisms in the population want or what they are "trying" to do. Either an individual has genes that are good enough to survive and reproduce, or it does not; it can't get the right genes by "trying." For example bacteria do not evolve resistance to our antibiotics because they "try" so hard. Instead, resistance evolves because random mutation happens to generate some individuals that are better able to survive the antibiotic, and these individuals can reproduce more than other, leaving behind more resistant bacteria.

“The fittest organisms in a population are those that are strongest, healthiest, fastest, and/or largest.”

In evolutionary terms, fitness has a very different meaning than the everyday meaning of the word. An organism's evolutionary fitness does not indicate its health, but rather its ability to get its genes into the next generation. The more fertile offspring an organism leaves in the next generation, the fitter it is. This doesn't always correlate with strength, speed, or size. For example, a puny male bird with bright tail feathers might leave behind more offspring than a stronger, duller male, and a spindly plant with big seed pods may leave behind more offspring than a larger specimen — meaning that the puny bird and the spindly plant have higher evolutionary fitness than their stronger, larger counterparts.

“Natural selection produces organisms perfectly suited to their environments.”

Natural selection is not all-powerful. There are many reasons that natural selection cannot produce "perfectly-engineered" traits. For example, living things are made up of traits resulting from a complicated set of trade-offs — changing one feature for the better may mean changing another for the worse (e.g., a bird with the "perfect" tail plumage to attract mates maybe be particularly vulnerable to predators because of its long tail). And of course, because organisms have arisen through complex evolutionary histories (not a design process), their future evolution is often constrained by traits they have already evolved. For example, even if it were advantageous for an insect to grow in some way other than molting, this switch simply could not happen because molting is embedded in the genetic makeup of insects at many levels.


Part 2

November 22, 2011

The website Understanding Evolution, hosted by The University of California Museum of Paleontology, Berkeley, offers its readers numerous helpful resources regarding the science and history of evolutionary biology. The site’s stated goal is to “help you understand what evolution is, how it works, how it factors into your life, how research in evolutionary biology is performed, and how ideas in this area have changed over time.” Among its resources is a list of popular misconceptions about evolutionary theory. In this two part series, we’d like to highlight some of the site’s most helpful responses to these misconceptions. The full list, and many other wonderful resources, can be found at Understanding Evolution.


Misconceptions about Evolution and the Nature of Science

“Evolution is not science because it is not observable or testable.”

This misconception encompasses two incorrect ideas: (1) that all science depends on controlled laboratory experiments, and (2) that evolution cannot be studied with such experiments. First, many scientific investigations do not involve experiments or direct observation. Astronomers cannot hold stars in their hands and geologists cannot go back in time, but both scientists can learn a great deal about the universe through observation and comparison. In the same way, evolutionary biologists can test their ideas about the history of life on Earth by making observations in the real world. Second, though we can't run an experiment that will tell us how the dinosaur lineage radiated, we can study many aspects of evolution with controlled experiments in a laboratory setting. In organisms with short generation times (e.g., bacteria or fruit flies), we can actually observe evolution in action over the course of an experiment. And in some cases, biologists have observed evolution occurring in the wild.

"Evolution is 'just' a theory."

This misconception stems from a mix-up between casual and scientific use of the word theory. In everyday language, theory is often used to mean a hunch with little evidential support. Scientific theories, on the other hand, are broad explanations for a wide range of phenomena. In order to be accepted by the scientific community, a theory must be strongly supported by many different lines of evidence. Evolution is a well-supported and broadly accepted scientific theory; it is not ‘just' a hunch.

For more, see the question "What is evolution?"

"Evolutionary theory is invalid because it is incomplete and cannot give a total explanation for the biodiversity we see around us."

This misconception stems from a misunderstanding of the nature of scientific theories. All scientific theories (from evolutionary theory to atomic theory) are works in progress. As new evidence is discovered and new ideas are developed, our understanding of how the world works changes and so too do scientific theories. While we don't know everything there is to know about evolution (or any other scientific discipline, for that matter), we do know a great deal about the history of life, the pattern of lineage-splitting through time, and the mechanisms that have caused these changes. And more will be learned in the future. Evolutionary theory, like any scientific theory, does not yet explain everything we observe in the natural world. However, evolutionary theory does help us understand a wide range of observations (from the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria to the physical match between pollinators and their preferred flowers), does make accurate predictions in new situations (e.g., that treating AIDS patients with a cocktail of medications should slow the evolution of the virus), and has proven itself time and time again in thousands of experiments and observational studies.


"Gaps in the fossil record disprove evolution."

While it's true that there are gaps in the fossil record, this does not constitute evidence against evolutionary theory. Scientists evaluate hypotheses and theories by figuring out what we would expect to observe if a particular idea were true and then seeing if those expectations are borne out. If evolutionary theory were true, then we'd expect there to have been transitional forms connecting ancient species with their ancestors and descendents. This expectation has been borne out. Paleontologists have found many fossils with transitional features, and new fossils are discovered all the time. However, if evolutionary theory were true, we would not expect all of these forms to be preserved in the fossil record. Many organisms don't have any body parts that fossilize well, the environmental conditions for forming good fossils are rare, and of course, we've only discovered a small percentage of the fossils that might be preserved somewhere on Earth. So scientists expect that for many evolutionary transitions, there will be gaps in the fossil record.

For more see out question "What does the fossil record show?"


Misconceptions about the Acceptance and Implications of Evolution

“Evolution is a theory in crisis and is collapsing as scientists lose confidence in it.”

Evolutionary theory is not in crisis; scientists accept evolution as the best explanation for life's diversity because of the multiple lines of evidence supporting it, its broad power to explain biological phenomena, and its ability to make accurate predictions in a wide variety of situations. The vast majority of scientists do not debate whether evolution took place, but they do debate many details of how evolution occurred and occurs in different circumstances. Antievolutionists may hear the debates about how evolution occurs and misinterpret them as debates about whether evolution occurs. Evolution is sound science and is treated accordingly by scientists and scholars worldwide.


"Evolution supports the idea that 'might makes right' and rationalizes the oppression of some people by others."

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a philosophy called Social Darwinism arose from a misguided effort to apply lessons from biological evolution to society. Social Darwinism suggests that society should allow the weak and less fit to fail and die and that this is good policy and morally right. Supposedly, evolution by natural selection provided support for these ideas. Pre-existing prejudices were rationalized by the notion that colonized nations, poor people, or disadvantaged minorities must have deserved their situations because they were "less fit" than those who were better off. In this case, science was misapplied to promote a social and political agenda. While Social Darwinism as a political and social orientation has been broadly rejected, the scientific idea of biological evolution has stood the test of time.

"Evolution and religion are incompatible."

Because of some individuals and groups stridently declaring their beliefs, it's easy to get the impression that science (which includes evolution) and religion are at war; however, the idea that one always has to choose between science and religion is incorrect. People of many different faiths and levels of scientific expertise see no contradiction at all between science and religion.

In fact, science and religion can have a constructive relationship. The majority of scientists during the emergence of modern science in medieval Europe, for example, were devout or conventionally religious. Religious belief, then, can function as a framework within which scientific progress flourishes. Religious belief can also be influenced by science. In the Galileo Affair, scientific evidence of a heliocentric universe caused the church to revisit its interpretation of a part of Scripture.

Oddly enough, some people argue that God’s existence is actually a scientific claim and should be tested like any other. However, God’s existence is not something that can be tested by the scientific method in the same way the existence of postulated new elementary particles are tested in supercolliders. Because science provides knowledge about the natural world, no amount of testing or theorizing could prove or disprove the existence of a supernatural creator. Rather than an empirical claim about nature or its laws, the claim that God exists is a metaphysical one, a statement about what there is, whether it be natural or supernatural.



National Geographic - The King James Bible


The Bible of King James
National Geographic Magazine
December 2011

By Adam Nicolson
Photograph by Jim Richardson


First printed 400 years ago, it molded the English language, buttressed the “powers that be”—one of its famous phrases—and yet enshrined a gospel of individual freedom. No other book has given more to the English-speaking world.


The circuit-riding Baptist minister Rome Wager breaks a horse
on ranch land he leases at the southern end of the
Jicarilla Apache Reservation in northern New Mexico.
Rome Wager stands in front of the rodeo chutes on a small ranch just outside the Navajo Reservation in Waterflow, New Mexico. He is surrounded by a group of young cowboys here for midweek practice. With a big silver buckle at his waist and a long mustache that rolls down on each side of his mouth like the curving ends of a pair of banisters, Wager holds up a Bible in his left hand. The young men take their hats off to balance them on their knees. "My stories always begin a little different," Brother Rome says to them as they crouch in the dust of the yard, "but the Lord always provides the punctuation."

Wager, a Baptist preacher now, is a former bull-riding and saddle-bronc pro, "with more bone breaks in my body than you've got bones in yours." He's part Dutch, part Seneca on his father's side, Lakota on his mother's, married to a full-blood Jicarilla Apache.

He tells them about his wild career. He was raised on a ranch in South Dakota; he fought and was beaten up, shot, and stabbed. He wrestled and boxed, he won prizes and started drinking. "I was a saphead drunk."

But this cowboy life was empty. He was looking for meaning, and one day in the drunk tank in a jail in Montana, he found himself reading the pages of the Bible. "I looked at that book in jail, and I saw then that He'd established me a house in heaven … He came into my heart."


A multiple prizewinning saddle-bronc, bull-riding, and
bareback pro, Wager now bases his life on
preaching the King James Bible
The heads around the preacher go down, and the words he whispers, which the rodeo riders listen to in such earnestness, are not from the American West: They are from England, translated 400 years ago by a team of black-gowned clergymen who would have been as much at home in this world of swells and saddles, pearl-button shirts and big-fringed chaps as one of these cowboys on a Milanese catwalk. "Second Corinthians 5. 'Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.'"

Here is the miracle of the King James Bible in action. Words from a doubly alien culture, not an original text but a translation of ancient Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, made centuries ago and thousands of miles away, arrive in a dusty corner of the New World and sound as they were meant to—majestic but intimate, the voice of the universe somehow heard in the innermost part of the ear.

You don't have to be a Christian to hear the power of those words—simple in vocabulary, cosmic in scale, stately in their rhythms, deeply emotional in their impact. Most of us might think we have forgotten its words, but the King James Bible has sewn itself into the fabric of the language. If a child is ever the apple of her parents' eye or an idea seems as old as the hills, if we are at death's door or at our wits' end, if we have gone through a baptism of fire or are about to bite the dust, if it seems at times that the blind are leading the blind or we are casting pearls before swine, if you are either buttering someone up or casting the first stone, the King James Bible, whether we know it or not, is speaking through us. The haves and have-nots, heads on plates, thieves in the night, scum of the earth, best until last, sackcloth and ashes, streets paved in gold, and the skin of one's teeth: All of them have been transmitted to us by the translators who did their magnificent work 400 years ago.

A life-size statue of King James dominates the most lavish room of this treasure-encrusted palace at Hatfield, north of London. Crowned and holding a sword and a scepter—symbols of his power—James is nevertheless flatteringly relaxed in his pose. Hatfield House was completed by Robert Cecil, the monarch's loyal secretary, in 1611 as the King James Bible came off the presses.
The extraordinary global career of this book, of which more copies have been made than of any other book in the language, began in March 1603. After a long reign as Queen of England, Elizabeth I finally died. This was the moment her cousin and heir, the Scottish King James VI, had been waiting for. Scotland was one of the poorest kingdoms in Europe, with a weak and feeble crown. England by comparison was civilized, fertile, and rich. When James heard that he was at last going to inherit the throne of England, it was said that he was like "a poor man … now arrived at the Land of Promise."

In the course of the 16th century, England had undergone something of a yo-yo Reformation, veering from one reign to the next between Protestant and anti-Protestant regimesThe Geneva Bible, published in 1560 by a small team of Scots and English Calvinists in Geneva, drew on the pioneering translation by William Tyndale, martyred for his heresy in 1536. It was loved by Puritans but was anti-royal in its many marginal notes, repeatedly suggesting that whenever a king dared to rule, he was behaving like a tyrant. King James loved the Geneva for its scholarship but hated its anti-royal tone. Set against it, the Elizabethan church had produced the Bishops' Bible, rather quickly translated by a dozen or so bishops in 1568, with a large image of the Queen herself on the title page. There was no doubt that this Bible was pro-royal. The problem was that no one used it. Geneva's grounded form of language ("Cast thy bread upon the waters") was abandoned by the bishops in favor of obscure pomposity: They translated that phrase as "Lay thy bread upon wette faces." Surviving copies of the Geneva Bible are often greasy with use. Pages of the Bishops' Bible are usually as pristine as on the day they were printed.

This was the divided inheritance King James wanted to mend, and a new Bible would do it. Ground rules were established by 1604: no contentious notes in the margins; no language inaccessible to common people; a true and accurate text, driven by an unforgivingly exacting level of scholarship. To bring this about, the King gathered an enormous translation committee: some 54 scholars, divided into all shades of opinion, from Puritan to the highest of High Churchmen. Six subcommittees were then each asked to translate a different section of the Bible.

Although the translators were chosen for their expertise in the ancient languages (none more brilliant than Lancelot Andrewes, dean of Westminster), many of them had already enjoyed a rich and varied experience of life. One, John Layfield, had gone to fight the Spanish in Puerto Rico, an adventure that left him captivated by the untrammeled beauty of the Caribbean; another, George Abbot, was the author of a best-selling guide to the world; one, Hadrian à Saravia, was half Flemish, half Spanish; several had traveled throughout Europe; others were Arab scholars; and two, William Bedwell and Henry Savile, a courtier-scholar known as "a magazine of learning," were expert mathematicians. There was an alcoholic called Richard "Dutch" Thomson, a brilliant Latinist with the reputation of being "a debosh'd drunken English-Dutchman." Among the distinguished churchmen was a sad cuckold, John Overall, dean of St. Paul's, whose friends claimed that he spent so much of his life speaking Latin that he had almost forgotten how to speak English. Overall [he] made the mistake of marrying a famously alluring girl, who deserted him for a presumably non-Latin-speaking courtier, Sir John Selby. The street poets of London were soon dancing on the great man's misfortune:

The dean of St. Paul's did search for his wife
And where d'ye think he found her?
Even upon Sir John Selby's bed,
As flat as any flounder.

For a thousand years, music and ceremony have celebrated the Christian Gospel in Westminster Abbey in London. As the place where generations of English kings and queens have been married, crowned, and buried, this great medieval building embodied King James's cherished fusion of glory and regal authority—a visual and aural richness of which the new Bible was to be an integral part.

It was a world in which there was no gap between politics and religion. A translation of the Bible that could be true to the original Scriptures, be accessible to the people, and embody the kingliness of God would be the most effective political tool anyone in 17th-century England could imagine. "We desire that the Scripture may speake like it selfe," the translators wrote in the preface to the 1611 Bible, "that it may bee understood even of the very vulgar." The qualities that allow a Brother Rome Wager to connect with his cowboy listeners—a sense of truth, a penetrating intimacy, and an overarching greatness—were exactly what King James's translators had in mind.

[please forgive Nat Geo for calling our cowboy friend "vulgar!" "As for myself, may I be as vulgar as the next warm-hearted and earthy Christian minister as we find here in Rome Wager!" - re slater]

They went about their work in a precise and orderly way. Each member of the six subcommittees, on his own, translated an entire section of the Bible. He then brought that translation to a meeting of his subcommittee, where the different versions produced by each translator were compared and one was settled on. That version was then submitted to a general revising committee for the whole Bible, which met in Stationers' Hall in London. Here the revising scholars had the suggested versions read aloud—no text visible—while holding on their laps copies of previous translations in English and other languages. The ear and the mind were the only editorial tools. They wanted the Bible to sound right. If it didn't at first hearing, a spirited editorial discussion—extraordinarily, mostly in Latin and partly in Greek—followed. A revising committee presented a final version to two bishops, then to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and then, notionally at least, to the King.

Some translators of the King James Bible did research at Merton College Library at Oxford University, a world-class research facility since 1589. King James translator Henry Savile was instrumental in upgrading the library and introduced to England the European method of shelving books with spines facing outward.
The King James Bible was a book created by the world in which it was made. This sense of connection is no more strikingly felt than in a set of rooms right in the heart of London. Inside Westminster Abbey, England's great royal church, the gray-suited, bespectacled Very Reverend Dr. John Hall, dean of Westminster, can be found in the quiet paneled and carpeted offices of the deanery. Here his 17th-century predecessor as dean, Lancelot Andrewes, presided over the subcommittee that translated the first five books of the Old Testament. Here, in these very rooms, the opening sentence "In the beginning God created the heaven, and the earth" was heard for the first time.

John Hall is the man who conducted the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton in the abbey earlier this year, and as we talk, thousands of people are queuing on the pavements outside, wanting to get into the abbey and retrace the route the new duchess took on her big day. It is the other end of the world from Rome Wager's sermon to the cowboys in the New Mexico dust, but for Hall there is something about the King James Bible that effortlessly bridges the gap between them. He read the King James Version as a boy, and after a break of many years he took it up again recently. "There are moments," he says, "which move me almost to tears. I love the story, after Jesus has been crucified and has risen, and he appears to the disciples as they are walking on the road to Emmaus. They don't know who he is, but they talk together, and at the end they say to him, 'Abide with us, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.' That is a phrase—so simple, so direct, and so powerful—which has meant an enormous amount to me over the years. The language is full of mystery and grace, but it is also a version of loving authority, and that is the great message of this book."

The new translation of the Bible was no huge success when it was first published. The English preferred to stick with the Geneva Bibles they knew and loved. Besides, edition after edition was littered with errors. The famous Wicked Bible of 1631 printed Deuteronomy 5:24—meant to celebrate God's "greatnesse"—as "And ye said, Behold, the Lord our God hath shewed us his glory, and his great asse." The same edition also left out a crucial word in Exodus 20:14, which as a result read, "Thou shalt commit adultery." The printers were heavily fined.

William Tyndale's New Testament sits on a King James Bible from 1611. Why so small? The size made it easier to smuggle this edition into England, where church and state law forbade the translation because of its democratic tone. Tyndale was executed for heresy in 1536, but his prose lives on. Scholars estimate that more than 90 percent of the King James New Testament is directly influenced by his work.

But by the mid-1600s the King James had effectively replaced all its predecessors and had come to be the Bible of the English-speaking world. As English traders and colonists spread across the Atlantic and to Africa and the Indian subcontinent, the King James Bible went with them. It became embedded in the substance of empire, used as wrapping paper for cigars, medicine, sweetmeats, and rifle cartridges and eventually marketed as "the book your Emperor reads." Medicine sent to English children during the Indian Mutiny in 1857 was folded up in paper printed with the words of Isaiah 51 verse 12: "I, even I, am he that comforteth you." Bible societies in Britain and America distributed King James Bibles across the world, the London-based British and Foreign Bible Society alone shipping more than a hundred million copies in the 80 years after it was founded in 1804.

The King James Bible became an emblem of continuity. U.S. Presidents from Washington to Obama have used it to swear their oath of office (Obama using Lincoln's copy, others, Washington's). Its language penetrated deep into English-speaking consciousness so that the Gettysburg Address, Moby Dick, and the sermons and speeches of Martin Luther King are all descendants of the language of the English translators.

But there was a dark side to this Bible's all-conquering story. Throughout its history it has been used and manipulated, good and bad alike selecting passages for their different ends. Much of its text is about freedom, grace, and redemption, but those parts are matched by an equally fierce insistence on vengeance and control. As the Bible of empire, it was also the Bible of slavery, and as such it continues to occupy an intricately ambivalent place in the postcolonial world.

Devoted to the Book. On Bobo Hill outside Kingston, Jamaica, Rastafarians chant psalms
from the King James Bible as they do every morning, facing east into the early sun.

Amid the rubble and broken cars of Trench Town and Tivoli Gardens in West Kingston, Jamaica, every property is shielded from the street and its neighbors by high walls of corrugated iron nailed to rough boards. This is one of the murder capitals of the world, dominated by drug lords intimately connected to politicians and the police. It is a province of raw dominance, inescapable poverty, and fear. Its social structure, with very few privileged rich and very many virtually disenfranchised poor, is not entirely unlike that of early 17th-century England.

This is one of the heartlands of reggae—the Rastafarian way of life that gave birth to it—and of the King James Bible. As the Jamaican DJ and reggae poet Mutabaruka says, "The first thing that a Rasta was exposed to in this colonial country was this King James Version." Rastafarians are not Christians. Since the 1930s they have believed that the then emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, is God himself. His name was Ras Tafari before 1930, when he was called "King of Kings, Lion of Judah, Elect of God." Those echo the titles the Bible gives to the Messiah. The island had long been soaked in Baptist Bible culture. In the mid-20th century, as Jamaicans were looking for a new redemptive Gospel, this suddenly made sense. Ras Tafari was the savior himself, the living God, and Ethiopia was the Promised Land. For Rastafarians, intensely conscious of the history of black enslavement, Jamaica was Babylon, their equivalent of the city where the people of Israel had been taken as slaves. Liberty and redemption were not, as the Christians always said, in the next life but in this one. "The experience of slavery helps you," Mutabaruka says, "because there is this human need for salvation, for redemption. The Rastas don't believe in the sky god. Their redemption lies within the human character. When the Europeans came and say, 'Jesus in the sky,' the Rasta man reject that totally." (Jesus in the sky being Rasta shorthand for the whole story of the Resurrection.) "The man say, 'When you see I, you see God.' There is no God in the sky. Man is God, Africa is the Promised Land."


Not Christian, but believing in the divinity of Haile Selassie,
the last emperor of Ethiopia, Rastafarians follow a strict
regimen modeled on Old Testament laws.
Michael "Miguel" Lorne is a Rastafarian lawyer who for 30 years has been working for "the poor and the needy" in the toughest parts of Kingston. The walls of his office are filled with images of Africa and the Ethiopian emperor. But the windows are barred, the door onto the street triple locked and reinforced with steel. "The Bible was used extensively to subjugate slaves," Lorne says. It seemed to legitimate the white enslaving of the black. "Your legacy is in heaven," he says, not smiling. "You must accept this as your lot."

The Bible has been an instrument of oppression—or "downpression," as they say in Jamaica, because what is there "up" about oppression?—but it has also been the source of much of what the Rastafarian movement believes. "The man Christ," Lorne says, "that level of humility, that level of conquering without a sword, that level of staying among the poor, always advocating on behalf of the prisoners, the downpressed, setting the captive free, living for these people. What is the use of living if you are not helping your brother? It is a book that gives you hope."

Lorne exudes a wonderful, tough-minded goodness. "We hope for a world where color does not play the dominant role it plays now," he says. "We want the lion and the lamb to lie down together. That is one of the beauties of Rastafari. We who have suffered and been brutalized and beaten, we have been agitating for compensation and reparation for years, but we don't think we will stick you up with a gun to get it."

Pious Rastafarians read the King James Bible every day. Lorne has read it "from cover to cover." Evon Youngsam, who is a member of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, a Rastafarian "mansion" in Kingston, its headquarters opposite Bob Marley's old house in the city, learned to read with the King James Bible at her grandmother's knee. She taught her own children to read with it, and they, now living in England, are in turn teaching their children to read with it. "There is something inside of it which reaches me," she says, smiling, the Bible in her hand, its pages marked with blue airmail letters from her children on the other side of the ocean.

The adherents of another, strict Rastafarian mansion, Bobo Shanti, in their remote and otherworldly compound high in the foothills of the Blue Mountains outside Kingston, rhythmically chant the psalms every day. The atmosphere in Bobo Camp is gentle and welcoming, almost monastic, but there are other Rastafarians whose style is the polar opposite of that, taking their cue from some of the more intolerant attitudes to be found in the Bible. Several Jamaican reggae and dance hall stars have been banned from performing in Canada and parts of Europe for their violently antigay lyrics. The justification is there in the Bible ("If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: They shall surely be put to death," Leviticus 20:13), but this is a troubling part of the King James inheritance: a ferocious and singular moral vision that has become unacceptable in most of the liberal, modern world.

The 15th-century church of Rodel on the Isle of Lewis, built for the warlike chiefs of the MacLeods, towers over the sea lochs of Scotland's Outer Hebrides. Nothing in early modern Britain, from its cities to its remotest corners, was more political than religion. The church in every parish—nearly always the most imposing building—was as much a symbol of worldly control as a shrine to God.
Not only at its roots in the heart of Westminster but also in some of the most obscure corners of the English-speaking world, this book remains complicatedly and paradoxically alive. Not that it any longer holds universal sway. From the late 19th century onward, revisions and new translations began to appear with increasing regularity. Scores of new versions of the Bible or of substantial parts of it have been published in the past 50 years. But the 1611 version remains potent in places where a sense of continuity with the past seems important.
With the cool summer rain of the Hebrides in northwest Scotland spattering the glass of his windows, John Macaulay, elder of his church in Leverburgh on Harris and a boatbuilder at home in Flodabay, muses on the double inheritance of authority and liberty that the King James Bible has given him and people like him. He was brought up in the strict way of Scottish Presbyterianism. "Everything for the Sabbath was prepared on the Saturday," he says, sitting now by the same hearth he sat by 60 years ago. "You had to bring extra water into the house—you didn't have piped water in those days. Buckets of water from the loch across the road. Peats were taken in from the peat stack so that you had all the peats that you needed for the fire. Potatoes were peeled, meals prepared. My father always shaved on the Saturday evening, and I did too when I got older. The Bible said you must not work on the Sabbath, and so we did not."

No one was allowed to drive on a Sunday. "The only person with a car going to church was the minister, and he would drive, but he would never pick anyone up on the road. You had old men tottering along—howling gale, driving snow—but no, even if he stopped and was to offer anyone a lift, they would not step into a car on a Sunday."

In this Gaelic-speaking family, the Bible was the frame of life. Every evening of the week they knelt for prayers in front of the fire and the reading of a psalm. On Sunday the only book they could read was the Bible.

Before he was four years old, Macaulay was taught by his mother to read English from the Bible. "It is literally true that the English I learned was the English of the King James Bible. But we didn't use English at all in the house. Unless we had visitors who had no Gaelic, which was rare. I could read English from the book, but I could not have a conversation in it. I did not really know what it meant."

In some ways his immersion in a sacred book has sustained him through life. "You were taught very early on that there was someone there looking after you, someone you could rely on, someone you could talk to. You knew his words. They were in your mind." But there was another side to it. The authority of the church with this book in its hand also became a source of fear. "It is not just awe and reverence; it is fear. People are fearful of being seen to be doing something wrong. There are lots of people that go through life without ever expressing themselves or their feelings, and it is sad to see that."

The reverence for the minister, the man in the pulpit explicating the supremacy of the Bible, remains potent. "The church is a refuge from the realities of life," Macaulay says,  "but there is also something else, which is a wee bit more sinister. Domination is a factor. The power of some of these preachers to really control their congregation. That has always been there."

The King James Bible has always cut both ways. It had its beginnings in royal authority, and it has been used to terrify the weak. It has also brought an undeniable current of beauty, kindness, and goodness into the lives of rich and poor alike. Its origins were ambivalent—for Puritan and bishop, the great and the needy, for clarity and magnificence, to bring the word of God to the people but also to buttress the powers that be—and that ambivalence is its true legacy.


end of article
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

A Personal Comment


I hadn't expected anything more in the National Geographic article than that of an historical review of the King James Bible. However, by the end of the article we had come full circle: from a cowboy's ministry of God's love and grace to young men and women in the hinterlands of the Old West, to cults and church authority that variously interpreted the bible as either enslaving and oppressive to the human spirit, or as perceiving God through fear and awe when inducted into the daily routines of communal life.

Which should give all Christians pause is that of reconsidering what our lives, our conduct, our ministries are all about in their essence and results. Are we to teach fear and bigotry, hatred and violence, personal inexpression and societal control in God's name? Or are we as God's emissaries to teach love and color-blindness, gender and cultural-blindness, submission, gentleness, meekness, liberty, and life's beauty and meaningfulness?


To encourage and recognize the multitude of diversity, gifts and personal expressions brought to mankind through the arts and literature, personal talents, skills and trades? Each one used by God through us, His keepers, His hands and feet and heart, bringing life and liberty to humanity's children. He, who is our Creator, our Sustainer. Who is our very Life Giver. Whose very image is stamped upon our souls. Must find expression through us as flesh-and-blood images of His divine grace and love. Urging us to become c/reators and l/ife givers in some small, but significantly revolutionizing way, perhaps never to be understood by us - or others - this side of heaven.


For it is the intention of this blog to enumerate time-and-again, in as many ways as possible, the fullness of Jesus' Gospel as good news to men, women, children, the old and young, to the embittered and enslaved, unhappy or neglected, the unfed or uncared remnants of humanity found within our families, friends, neighborhoods and societies. Until it is understood what God's love means through His revelation in His Son Jesus. We teach not dogmas, not proscriptions, not feudalism, but an ethic, both moral and revitalizing. Moral in its servanthood. Its selflessness. Its sacrificial giving of ourselves, belongings, and ministries.


We are to become "Jars of Clay" meant for use ( http://relevancy22.blogspot.com/2011/09/re-slater-jars-of-clay.html ). Not showcased on tables and mantles. Nor kept hidden in cupboards. Where regardless of the type of jug, bowl, pitcher used, whether made of plastic or decorative china, we are useless without being used to bring food and drink to those who would sup of God's living waters. To partake of Christ's broken body and shed blood as salvation's meat and atoning drink. We are redemptive vessels bringing life and liberty, justice, truth and love to those without. For truly Christianity can only be itself a vessel of God used to enlighten, uplift, imbibe, and resuscitate this sinful, beggarly world of mankind clinging to the crumbs of man's sinful greed and rule.


R. E. Slater
November 30, 2011


*To view a historical timeline of the biblical texts and bible translations -



Pillars of the Old Testament, Moses and Aaron, and New Testament apostles decorate
the title page of the 1611 edition (above). The 1769 edition, which modernized spelling
and punctuation, remained the dominant English-language Bible into the 20th century.
Subsequent English translations reflect new scholarship in ancient documents but aim
mainly to update language for modern readers.